How the Shackleton Expedition Survived an
Antarctic Winter on Floating Ice
Let’s say you’re looking for a job, and you come across this gem online. “Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful.” Chances are, you’d pass it up. But in 1914, 28 intrepid adventurers eagerly signed up for the gig — and ended up stranded in a hunk of floating ice for more than a year. Incredibly, all 28 made it back alive.
A Ship in the Endless Night
Sir Ernest Shackleton certainly couldn’t be accused of being overly optimistic in his job listing. And it’s a good thing, too. Otherwise, he might not have secured a crew capable of surviving one of the most extreme environments on the planet. Many polar expeditions (like the one led by Sir John Franklin in 1845) simply disappeared without a trace, but the crew of Sir Shackleton’s aptly named Endurance lived to tell the tale of their incredible ordeal.
The timeline of the Shackleton Expedition is well documented — but no less incredible for that. Here’s how the wreck, the year trapped in ice, and the eventual rescue went down:
December 5, 1914 – With his crew of seasoned ship-hands, scientists, and an accomplished nature photographer, Shackleton departs from a whaling station at South Georgia Island. They will not touch land for another 497 days. Two days later, they first encounter pack ice, and on December 30, they cross the Antarctic Circle.
January 18, 1915 – The ship becomes lodged in pack ice. It will never move on its own power again. On May 1, the sun sets for the season — it won’t rise for another four months. Under ever-increasing pressure and structural damage from the surrounding ice drifts, Shackleton orders the Endurance abandoned on October 27. The ship finally sinks on November 21. On December 29, the crew gives up their quest to march across the ice and sets up Patience Camp, their home until the drifting ice slowly carries them within sight of land.
April 7, 1916 – After four months at sea, the crew spots land: remote, desolate Elephant Island. They embark on a seven-day voyage using three surviving lifeboats, and land ashore on April 16. Eight days later, Shackleton and five others set out in one of the lifeboats for South Georgia. They reach the island’s whaling station after 17 days at sea, plus a 36-hour trek across glacier-covered mountains. On May 23, they depart on the Southern Sky to rescue the other men on Elephant Island, but are once again blocked by pack ice. Over the next 60 days, two more ships attempt the journey but are again forced to turn back. Finally, on August 30, Shackleton returns to Elephant Island onboard the Yelcho, and the entire crew is rescued.
The Men of the Endurance
All 28 members of the Shackleton Expedition showed great courage and extreme mettle to survive such a harrowing experience, but some individuals’ stories stick out as especially incredible.
Frank Hurley – Perhaps more than anyone else, photographer Frank Hurley is responsible for the story of the Endurance surviving for generations to come. Despite perilous conditions, he faithfully documented the incredible events going on around him. His striking images don’t just convey the isolation of a broken, black ship wedged in endless white ice. They also show the humanity of the stranded men and how their camaraderie increased their odds of survival.
Perce Blackborow – A story that’s remarkable by virtue of sheer audacity, Blackborow had stowed away onboard the Endurance and attracted Shackleton’s unbridled rage when he was discovered three days into the journey. According to Roland Huntford’s biography of Shackleton, the leader of the expedition informed Blackborow that, should food run thin, the stowaway would be eaten first. Blackborow responded, “They’d get a lot more meat off of you, sir.” Blackborow grew to prove his worth and Shackleton eventually took him on as an official member of the crew — on the provision that he would still be the first one to be eaten.
Robert Clark – One of many scientists onboard the ship, Clark was a zoologist who devoted himself to his research even while marooned on the ice. He dredged up biological specimens from the bottom of the ocean, and performed several penguin dissections to better understand how they survived on the ice. Though gruff and even rude, he was well liked by the crew for his athletic prowess and willingness to volunteer for difficult and unpleasant tasks. When the expedition was forced to abandon ship, captain Frank Worsley would comment, “I felt sorry for Clark, as I lay there that night and realized that he had been obliged to leave on the Endurance the whole of his valuable collection that he had been at such pains to classify and study.”
Frank Worsley – Sir Shackleton may have been the expedition leader, but Frank Worsley was the captain of the ship, and he more than showed his salt. It was Worsley’s navigation that guided Shackleton’s lifeboat from Elephant Island to the whalers on South Georgia Island, and the two men fostered such mutual respect for each other that they would remain in close contact for the rest of their lives. Worsley went on to participate in both World Wars, sinking U-boats in the first and assisting as a member of the Red Cross in the second.
Throughout their year on ice, the men never lost their cool (yeah, we went there). Smithsonian Channel’s new series, “Make It Out Alive” chronicles similar stories of extreme survival from people who defied incredible odds. Stream the Mount St. Helens episode of “Make It Out Alive” here now, and tune in to Smithsonian Channel Sundays at 9 p.m. (Eastern/Pacific) for brand-new episodes through November 19.